Haven’t seen any black Middle-earthlings yet–unless you want to count Orcs–but that didn’t stop me from appreciating and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, I wasn’t sold on anything about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Sure, LOTR was fun, epic and no doubt kick ass—how many times have you seen Gandalf’s “You Shall Not Pass!” scene parodied?—but when the internet was set ablaze by the rumors of the precursor to Jackson’s epic film trilogy becoming a reality, my first reactions left me asking “is this really necessary?” Even more so, when it was later announced that another three part treatment was planned for this textually bereft adventure, The Hobbit careened into “I don’t give a shit” territory.
Do I really need to see a book that’s less than a quarter of the length of its tri-film sequel made into an experiment in protraction? Spread out over three painstaking years? Raking in millions upon millions of over half a millennia worth of Tolkien fanatics’ hopeful dollars, regardless of it being a masterpiece or recipe for disaster?
Despite my worst fears, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an unabashedly jocular step backwards into the Tolkien universe: a polished and glossy look at the pre-LOTR gloom of Middle-earth. With its much yammered about 48fps frame rate, the film exists as quite simply an educational, and fun mind you, exercise in what action filmmakers–Michael Bay we are all looking at you–should be aiming to have their multimillion dollar attempts at mega, eye-orgasmic projects actually aesthetically amounting to.
Meandering quite a bit from Tolkien’s source material, we see Bilbo Baggin’s (Martin Freeman) penning the gaping history of the events of Middle-earth. After lots of supplementary dwarf lore is unloaded on the audience, Bilbo takes us back to the faithful day whend Gandalf the Grey Wizard (Sir Ian McKellen) finds Bilbo on the doorstep of his Hobbit hole and selects him as the unsuspecting thief in a dangerous 14 person expedition to reclaim the ancient dwarf gold and kingdom conquered by the evil dragon Smaug. Chased by ferocious Wargs and Golbins, Bilbo and the company are taken to the bowels of Middle-earth and back. With new and unforeseen obstacles at every turn, its Bilbo’s light hearted demeanour which helps head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the funny companions fight for survival on their adventure through Tolkien’s fantasy realm.
The wilful naiveté of The Hobbit is surely going to confuse many, and I’m sure there will be lots of complaints about of lack of focus on Bilbo’s character. Moreover, any who assumed that The Hobbit would adopt the same grave and sombre tones as Jackson’s LOTR film trilogy will feel thwarted. Yet, those who deny the playful attitude that was the fulcrum of Tolkien’s source novel must remember that The Hobbit was never intended to be more than a light hearted story set in Middle-earth. Further, although built around Bilbo, the story is hardly supposed to be completely about the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggin’s—who Tolkien only ever uses as cuddly glue for the dwarves’ dilemmas.
Although a blockbuster manufacturer, Jackson is a director who likes take chances. We’ve seen some of them work (LOTR), some of them do just okay (King Kong), and some fall flat on their faces (The Lovely Bones). But adapting The Hobbit shouldn’t be thought of as Jackson’s latest risk. Rather, the gamble Jackson takes with this film is his insistence on using 48fps technology. Early screenings of The Hobbit left some reviewers saying that the technique made the film look like a soap opera, ripping away the cinematic gloss that goes hand in hand with the look of movie magic.
But other than having brightly lit scenes and being able to see most of Freeman and McKellen’s pores, I couldn’t find much fault with Jackson’s approach—at first. Taking a decided minute to decipher what precisely I was watching on the big screen, it’s true that at times you can tell you’re watching a movie with an sped up frame rate as some scenes have that silent film era acceleration that looks bizarre.
But once the pack leaves the quaint Shire and the action sequences kick into play, I couldn’t have thanked Jackson more for this choice. I’m accustomed to the typically distorted conundrum that many of even my favourite action films resort to, so The Hobbit’s greatest asset is that the film finally makes it possible to actually see everything. Watching Thorin, Bilbo and the dwarves speed through the mines of Moria on a rickety, Crash Bandicoot track and not having to strain to see each and every one of the company and their hundreds of Golbin captors’ charcoal dusted faces is what forces us to ask ourselves “were people really moving ‘too fast’ for the camera before? Why was I being shown shadowy, hazy action in those other movies?”
Jackson’s embrace of 48fps will, perhaps, be one of the greatest aesthetically transformative viewing experiences since James Cameron’s Avatar re-introduced 3D, and I have a feeling that similarly to the domino effect that Cameron’s Pocahontas-in-space experiment set off–over 100 films have been released in 3D since Avatar’s 2009 debut–The Hobbit will stand as a model of what cinematic action could (and should) aspire to resemble.
If it’s not Thorin’s slow motion battle scene with Orc chieftan Azog (Manu Bennett), or the breathtaking depiction of the majestic Eagles, it will be Andy Serkis’ mind blowing return as the dark power CG fiend Gollum. Carrying out the The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter with fantastic accuracy and nailing its playfully morose undertones on the head, Freeman and Gollum’s riddle exchange stands as an impressive display of the seldom times when technological innovation and spot on direction amalgamate into on screen finesse.
Although suffering from plot fluffing and inclusions of utterly non-Hobbit related characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the problems of The Hobbit are immediately noticeable. Running at about 162 minutes, it doens’t take a Tolkien fanatic to realize that Jackson ferociously grasps much farther than this children’s fairy tale fantasy was ever meant to reach.
The most astounding merit that The Hobbit accomplishes is that it has, attempted at least, to make fantasy a reality. The 48fps, the crystal clear quality; love it or hate it, it’s certainly fascinating that someone has finally pushed aside the years of hand puppets, animatronics and shoddy CG to present New Zealand’s very real landscapes with an HD lens.
Although not perfected, seeing Tolkien’s world in fine detail makes all the Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg-style blur-action of today look like beer goggled, faux cinematic masturbation: a hangover I’d pass up to see something like this any day.